The Lankan Underground
Back in the Nineties, when I told people I played in a rock band, they’d look at me as if I’d just farted. Back then rock was hairy men growling to empty rooms. Some of it still is. And polluting the air with crap no one wants to hear is, I suppose, the audio equivalent of flatulence.
My band, Independent Square, kept pulling grunge out of our asses, and soon more kids started turning up, many formed bands, some depressingly better than ours, and then by the mid-00s, everyone played guitar, some imitating to Pearl Jam, others worshipping Lamb of God.
But today, if you tell someone in Colombo that you play rock music, you may be greeted with a yawn. Colombo today is a mix of many scenes and not all of them require distorted guitars.
Rock, EDM and the avant-garde are associated with many things, of which the isle of Sri Lanka is probably not one. This country is as famous for its underground sound as Sonic Youth is for left-arm spin. But that may well change.
The only Sri Lankan artist (so far) to make it to the Oscars, the Grammies and the Superbowl, did it playing hip hop. But MathangiArulpragasam – better known as MIA – is disowned by an island offended by her vocal support of the not so recently vanquished LTTE.
There’s also a Lankan producer in New York called Ranidu who has fused EDM and traditional baila, to create Bailatronic, which may or not be the next big thing.
And rock is far from dead. Metal band Stigmata’s three albums have sold in the tens of thousands and video views for their fusion jam Andura has hit six figures. Less heavy and less hardworking, Paranoid Earthling have toured India, played Kabul, and amassed enough hits to make their debut record one of 2014’s most anticipated.
But there lurks another scene, one that doesn’t require any guitars. Once a year, a musty street market trades crates and gunny sacks for decks, strobes and big stacks, and bathes Colombo’s dance crowd in a rain of beats and bass lines.
EDM successfully negotiates that groove between party and performance, between entertainment and art. Evolving from offshore raves helmed by DJs Shiyam and Tim in the late 2000s, it has unearthed Asvajit Boyle, a local boy who’s found a sound, released an EP on UK label Lifted Recordings, and taken his deep house and minimal tech to London’s Koko and Berlin’s Fusion Festival.
Between this electric rainbow and that metal abyss, is a third kind of noise, not quite as loud, but no less daring. At the Big Ears jam, held one Friday every month, virtuosos from the Music Matters school, like the fusion outfit Thriloka, meld local folk, free jazz and post-rock to create curious grooves and hypnotic textures. What should be a mess sounds mesmerizing. What could’ve sounded indulgent feels strangely brilliant.
So where did it begin? With a war, with MTV, with suburban kids aping the west. What follows is a severe case of long story short. Two events, generations apart.One a movie; the other, a homicide.
The Sixties took their time getting to Sri Lanka. Jim-Reeves-toting Radio Ceylon monopolized the airwaves and vinyl was an overtaxed luxury under Mrs B’s socialist sojourn. Then in 1971, a year of botched revolutions and state terror, they screened Woodstock at the Liberty cinema.
What followed was long hair, bad weed, smuggled records, bands called Unwanted Generation, Savage and Cancer, and many versions of “The Smoking Rock Festival” where late-blooming flower children discovered Zep, Floyd, Sabbath and Santana.
The Eighties’ free market came with television, commercial radio, recordable Sony C90 cassettes and a war that would last 30 years. Unlike in the west, rock didn’t engage with politics. Instead bands like Rattlesnake and Venom played Iron Maiden covers at Rock Saturdays as a noisy diversion.
Then in 1991, a 16-year-old schoolboy stabbed his mother and shot his father and they blamed it on heavy metal, and priests came to school and played us Judas Priest and AC/DC and said ‘don’t touch’, so of course we did.
MTV rotated grungy guitars, foul-mouthed rappers and block rockin’ beats for a generation of teenagers kept at home during curfews and bomb blasts. By the late 90s, bands like mine had already begun to fart. Though few of us lasted the next decade.
And now herewe are. Hip hop, R’n B and house have infiltrated the Sinhala and Tamil mainstream via the likes of Iraj, Dinesh Aryan and Bathiya&Santhush. And rock is no longer the only voice of the underground.
No one pretends the next big scene will come from Sri Lanka. We have many small scenes, some borrowed, some created; but not too many true voices. Each generation can replicate, but how many scenes have had a sound of their own?
In the past, professional musicians played safe covers, while originals belonged to the dabblers and the dilettantes. Those who wrote songs, lacked musicianship. Those who had chops, didn’t have imagination. Those who entertained, couldn’t provoke thought. And those who thought too much, played to empty rooms.
But no longer. Every band and DJ mentioned, acts and performs like a pro. Some are savvy marketers; some obsess over craft. A few even make a living from playing what they love.
Perhaps one day we’ll be known for something other than erratic cricketers and ugly wars. Because Sri Lanka’s got talent and an abundance of things worth expressing. It doesn’t matter if we find our voice in the frenzied snarl of a rocker, or in the electronic murmur of a DJ who chooses not to use one. Because everyone knows the golden rule of farting. If you do it loudly, and with conviction, you’re less likely to stink.
Shehan Karunatilaka is a failed guitarist and author of Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize
R.O.C.K. in the S.L.
Five original Sri Lankan tunes you should hear.
“Lucid” by Stigmata (2005)
One of the softer tunes from our premier metal band’s second album. If you’re going to see one Lankan band live, make it them.
“Haro Hara” by Tapas (2006)
Hippie artists mix rock with spiritual chants in this underappreciated gem.
“Circus Freak” by Nisho and Zilwa (2012)
These boys got signed to Sentio Records with this stylishly engineered dance floor hit.
“Bringing Down the Sun” by Paranoid Earthling (2008)
Our tightest and laziest rockers give us a trademark riff and a music video featuring war footage.
“Shape Scene” by Asvajit (2011)
The crown prince of EDM shows us why he’s making waves in the European dance ocean.